Solar Inventor Waits For His Day In The Sun

If solar is ever supported, Doug Wood will do the dishes

story by Eric Nelson
photos by Mike Blain
The Free Press

The focal point of Doug Wood's dream to power the people with solar energy stands in the meadow behind his Fox Island geodesic dome. Some 60 feet tall, Wood's solar concentrator reaches to the sky with a simple elegance and a commanding presence.

"In time, you'll see solar concentrators everywhere," says Wood, with a knowing smile. In the meantime, he's got plenty of reasons why we don't see more of them right now.

Most people would have given up long ago. Or never even tried. But the 42-year-old Wood is driven by the prospect that the sun can provide most of our energy needs. He is the only employee of his company, Solar Steam Inc. Right now the company makes no money and Wood draws no salary. He lives frugally with his wife Sandra, a physician who interns during the week at the University of Washington. The lack of interest and occasional obstructionism by the US. Department of Energy (DOE), Wall Street, the utility industry and even other solar proponents have left him cynical about trying to wean this country off its dirty energy habits.

"DOE invested billions into bad solar to make nuclear look better. And now, even conservationists have bought into a lie that solar is more expensive," he said.

But the gleaming results of hard work and ingenuity still convince Wood that his device will help a planet that is overheating and choking itself to death on fossil fuels.

Some policy analysts say that solar and wind energy are the wave of the future as small-scale plants replace giant generating complexes. With industries and consumers increasingly shopping for electricity or generating their own, the traditional "grid" through which utilities deliver electricity could be in for a shock.

In a recent report entitled "Powering the Future," the Worldwatch Institute concluded that "New technologies and a more competitive market will severely shake the $800 billion-a-year electric power industry in the next few years. Pressured by real competition for the first time, some of today's large, debt-burdened companies may break up and many high-cost nuclear and coal plants may shut down."

Amory Lovins, director of research at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo. and author of the renewable energy manifesto Soft Energy Paths calls Wood's dish "an excellent design."

"It's very clever and practical, and should find many cost-effective applications. Doug's dish would be good for industrial applications in remote Third World sites," Lovins said.

But Lovins also noted that Wood's poor success in marketing the dish is "a classic story of not having both inventor's (skills) and entrepreneurial skills."

Wood's solar concentrator is a parabolic dish lined with 560 triangular mirrors that focus the sun's rays on a bulbous "receiver" in the middle of the dish. Water inside the receiver becomes super-heated and produces steam. The steam could be used for heating, industrial processes, or could turn a generator to produce electricity.

But despite a working prototype built in 1986 - not to mention a smaller dish built in 1978 - Wood still needs investors to bankroll a manufacturing startup. No buyers have stepped forward offering to grab the next dish off the line because there is no line. He figures that he needs $1.5 million to start a manufacturing operation. Large hotels could be a prime market: the flashy dishes would attract plenty of attention, as well as providing hot water. In addition, the hotels instantly would become "green operators."

Between 1982 and 1984, Solar Steam raised $1 million in private capital. By 1986, the company had two impressive prototypes and six employees. But in 1986, the price of oil collapsed and government funding for renewable energy projects had long since dried up under Reaganism. A 1983 column by Jack Anderson's associate John Dillon detailed how Solar Steam was in line for a $50,000 grant from DOE's Office of Energy-Related Inventions, but the Reaganites had axed the program from the budget, despite its cost-effectiveness in fostering new technology.

(click for full sized image)
(click for full sized image)
Wood has a new design on the drawing board.
(illustrations courtesy Doug Wood)

Elizabeth Moore, a legislative organizer for the American Solar Energy Society said solar is still a "stepchild in the federal budget." Jimmy Carter's 1980 solar budget was $938 million (in 1992 dollars). When Ronald Reagan took office, he removed Carter's solar panels from the White House roof; by 1988 he had cut the solar budget by 90 percent.

This year DOE will spend $252 million on solar. The Clinton Administration has undertaken a Global Climate Change Initiative, but its focus and funding remain unclear.

Lovins says that the Clinton Administration is "by far the best-versed administration ever in renewables and energy policy," but a wholesale transformation is unlikely because of a three-year lag time in planning and starting new initiatives. "That only leaves them one year to get anything done," he says.

Not "Economically Competitive"?
Wood's theories about the government's failure to support renewable energy are numerous. One of the simplest is that, "Reagan hated solar because Jerry Brown liked it."

More to the point, he argues, is that the Department of Energy has never been interested in energy. DOE's heart and soul rests with the atom bomb and the reactors used to produce its deadly ingredients. Just a cursory glance at Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary's attempts to reform an agency run amok in graft, incompetence and nuclear waste - now that its days of producing the nation's nuclear arsenal are over - lend credence to Wood's arguments.

"DOE wanted solar to look as poor as possible so they sabotaged the R&D at the labs," he said. While he has the utmost respect for the physicists and researchers at the DOE laboratories - and admits he drew on their efforts for his own dish - Wood calls their institutions "solar prisons" because their research efforts are dictated by a bureaucracy that is beholden to the power grid, not small-scale systems that could supply a town or neighborhood. A trip in late July to a conference at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. reinforced his previous perceptions. "I ran into intense hostility from DOE bureaucrats," he said.

Wood is not alone in his views, nor is his experience unique. In a thorough primer on the politics of solar, "The Sun Betrayed: A Report on the Corporate Seizure of U.S. Solar Energy Development," (South End Press, Boston, 1979) author Ray Reece interviewed numerous independent solar inventors who were given the cold shoulder by the government.

Solar businessman Jim Piper explained to Reece the dilemma facing many solar inventors: "You either do your own thing in solar energy, or you do the government's thing. If you do the government's thing, one of their unwritten rules is that it must be very expensive." The government-corporate line on solar has evolved over the years. "At first their ploy was 'Anybody involved with this thing is crazy.' Then they said, 'It's too expensive and you can't buy one.' Then the line was "It's an advanced technology and the people who are saying it can be done are wrong because look at all the big corporations that are trying to do it and look at all the money we have put out to do a system.' Their next stop will be to say, 'Well, the only way solar can be successful is to make electricity out of it, so we'll have to give the utilities a big system to do that with.'"

Lovins said that in the late 1970s and 1980s the government set out to "remake solar in the image of nuclear." But now in the wake of fiscal constraints and the utter failure of the nation's nuclear program, "the assumption of gigantism left over from the days of Stalinism is gone," he said.

However, solar lobbyist Moore points out that "the total spent on all solar programs together is less than that spent on fusion, an energy supply technology that is not cost-effective and may never be."

Wood still bridles at what he believes is a conspiracy against small-scale solar thermal projects because time after time the acclaim his dish has received has not been matched by private or public funding.

One of the main government and industry arguments against solar energy has always been that it is not yet "economically competitive."

Wood estimates that his dish could produce the annual energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil. (Depending on the climate, the dish will generate between 80 to 90 kilowatts, thermal.) Wood believes he could produce and sell the dishes for $20,000 each, which means it would take 10 years to break even with oil - if oil stays at the current $20 a barrel.

But comparing solar to oil in dollars and cents is a narrow, short-term view based on low oil costs and none of the heavy "social costs" that many forms of energy carry.

Wall Street once backed up corporate efforts towards solar energy as long as tax credits were easily obtained and the price of oil was high. But now that oil is cheap, Wall Street refuses to fund renewable energy projects and chastises major utilities for "wasting" their time and money on alternative energy research and development. Sanford Cohen, a utilities analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co., was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, "What I have seen of renewables research results so far doesn't impress me as to its economic value. No utility should eliminate R&D completely, but every decision should be made balanced with near-term issues."

Wood responds that Wall Street "hates environmentalism because it gets in the way of profits."

Much of the interest in renewable energy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was generated by tax credits, not environmental altruism. Now that those days are over, and many a fly-by-night wind and solar outfit has bit the dust, Wood and other renewable energy diehards must disprove the bad rap left by tax credit conservationists.

Wood has drawn up detailed analyses of solar economics. The simple answer is that comparing solar costs to hydroelectric, fossil and nuclear energy is like compaaring apples and oranges. The ridiculously cheap 2 cents to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour that consumers pay for electricity in the Northwest includes none of the hidden "social costs" of environmental destruction such as the loss of Northwest salmon. The hefty price tags of nuclear cleanup, and oil exploration, extraction, transportation and pollution, - not to mention disastrous health effects - all carry costs that run off the meter. New taxes to reflect the "true costs" of fossil or nuclear energy will certainly push our energy bills up higher.

With a decentralized system of solar concentrators, however, utilities will have a hard time hanging a meter on the sun or charging rate hikes for unstable politics in the Persian Gulf. As Wood wrote in a 1982 article on the economics of his first 46 kilowatt thermal dish: "A solar collector is worth as much as the energy it produces in its lifetime. The precise economic figure is dependent on how much you expect energy to rise in price and how much your money is worth in investment alternatives."

For example, a hot water heater is one of the biggest consumers of energy in a home. You can spend your money now on a solar dish to provide hot water for the long term, or spend more and more over time to take a shower as you heat your water with increasingly expensive electricity or gas. Of one thing you can be sure: the inflation index for energy is a lot higher than the 2 percent interest rate on your savings account.

In an ideal world, Wood believes clusters of solar dishes could be situated 20 miles outside major cities and the steam piped in for heating or hot water. He estimates that 7,000 dishes spread over five square miles could provide a 40 megawatt baseload (30 megawatts in the winter), or enough to provide hot water or heat for a small city. However, solar planners are already skittish about central systems that supply remote communities, because Americans are unused to sharing communal resources that might require personal sacrifices at times, like not cranking up the hot tub so your neighbor can take a shower. A central solar system "requires a tribal social structure, which is not the American way," one solar equipment supplier told the Wall Street Journal.

Wood has little patience for that mindset. "This thing could cool off the planet," he said, pointing to his solar concentrator. "But I still can't get anybody to care. This is a society that lost its will to survive collectively. It's every dog for himself."

Savvy Surplus Scrounger
Doug Wood is nothing if not resourceful. He used a student loan to purchase seven acres on Fox Island in the 1970s. ("They said you had to use it for food, housing and tuition, but they didn't say what proportion could be spent on housing," he noted.) He drew heavily on an analytic geometry textbook, last checked out from The Evergreen State College in 1974. The text's principles proved instrumental in developing a dish with triangular mirrors that always stay in focus.

A period spent traveling in New Zealand and Australia gave him an early education in back-woods solar. In New Zealand he saw a series of 55 gallon drums on stilts and connected with pipe. As the water heats in the barrels, it rises. By drawing water off the top of the barrels, the Kiwis had created a low-tech hot water heater.

Wood says the simplest hot water heater he can think of is to snake plastic pipe under a black asphalt driveway.

"The best solar is done without an education. You have to unlearn bad solar," he says.

"I'm not an engineer, I picked it up through osmosis."

Upon his return from Australia and Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, Wood tried to retrofit old radar dishes into solar concentrators. However, that project failed, prompting him to design his own dish structure. Based on a modified geodesic dome, the structure is strong, lightweight and requires no adjustment after the mirrors are installed. That makes it ideal for set up in remote regions or the Third World.

Wood is also a savvy surplus scrounger. He bought a huge fire extinguisher tank - 45 feet long and weighing 65 tons - from the never-finished Satsop nuclear plant for some deep-water metal-bending experiments. Rather than spending huge sums on production tooling for graphite dies, he has dropped metal strapped to wood forms into Puget Sound and even 1,700 feet to the bottom of Crater Lake in Oregon. The intense pressure at those depths does all the work.The tank now lies submerged off Fox Island.

Wood also frequents The Boeing Co.'s surplus yards, particularly for the 4,000-square-foot passive-solar house he is building. He estimates that when completed, the house will have cost him just $10,000 in concrete, plywood forms (all recycled as part of the roof) and rebar.

With four patents to his name and even a 1983 citation from the Department of Commerce noting that his design has "significant potential for directly replacing fossil fuels in specific cases," Wood is resentful that so much time and energy has been put into photovoltaic research. "Backyard photovoltaic dishes will be toys for the rich," he mutters.

Neither is he especially fond of the idea that his solar concentrator will be hooked up to a steam generator to produce electricity for space heaters and clothes dryers.

"The application of solar is as corrupted as its design. Solar should be used to displace (electrical) energy, not replace it."

In other words, why waste thermal energy produced by the sun on an inefficient transfer to electrical current? The steam could be piped directly into homes as heating, used as hot water supply, or even pumped into clay soil in what is called "seasonal heat storage." According to Wood, the Swedes inject steam into the ground during the summer and retrieve that heat in the winter by pumping cold water into a system of buried pipes. The warm soil heats the water.

Wood's criticisms of photovoltaic have merit considering its sketchy past. After 20 years of intensive research and government backing, major corporations are dropping photovoltaic cells and running back to oil and gas. Mobil Corp. sunk $100 million dollars over 20 years into a solar project, but has sold off its research data and photovoltaic panels in the desert.

And last year, German nuclear giant Siemens AG filed suit against oil giant Atlantic Richfield Co. (Arco) claiming that Arco sold it a failed solar project. Arco had acquired the project in 1977 and pumped $200 million into what became the world's largest producer of solar energy products. However, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Siemens later obtained Arco correspondence in which Arco officials wrote less than two months before the deal closed, "As it appears that ... Arco's solar cell technology is a pipe dream, let Siemens have the pipe." Siemens was suing to recover the $150 million price it had paid.

And LUZ, a 354 megawatt Israeli-financed solar project in the Mojave Desert went bankrupt in 1991.

However, there is some evidence that photovoltaic might be getting better. A cooperative effort between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, several private companies and Japan's Canon Inc. produced a new solar cell that will apparently operate at 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, a big improvement over the 25 cents to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour for traditional photovoltaic cells. Advanced Photovoltaic Systems in Davis, Ca., a company financed by the United Steelworker's Retirement Fund is also said to be producing efficient and cost-effective solar panels.

"Solar is making an unbelievable comeback around the U.S.," said Mike McSorley, who follows solar for the Washington Energy Office in Olympia. "It is interesting that after the oil companies got out, this thing is really taking off."

One intriguing large-scale concept is the "Tower of Power" that uses a large array of mirrors to focus solar energy on a central tower that contains a molten salt compound, which has excellent heat retention properties. One such project, Solar One in Barstow, Ca. has just received $39 million in consortium funding for a more ambitious 10 megawatt project.

Meanwhile, Wood is still hopeful that he can find $1.5 million to mass produce the concentrator that has been able to produce steam on cloudy Fox Island for the past eight years. A short profile in the Wall Street Journal last year yielded much publicity, but few results. Still, Wood remains an optimist.

"There is a groundswell from the bottom up for 'green' things," Wood says. As long as oil and nuclear interests or the federal government don't undermine solar efforts, he adds, "the market can support a competitive (solar) industry."

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